September 25

Schug Carneros Estate Winery- Vegan Wines in Sonoma Valley!

Schug Carneros Estate logo reflects their German history!

I wanted to add a quick update to my experiences with Schug Carneros Estate Winery. As you’ll see once you read my blog post, the winery has a gorgeous view; offers incredible vegan wines and really knows how to throw a party. I was invited back recently by Crista Johnson, Schug’s Marketing Coordinator, to celebrate Oktoberfest. She assured me that Chef Kristine even had some vegan German cuisine just for Steve and me. So on another gorgeous day I headed over to beautiful Sonoma to spend the afternoon with my new friends at Schug. The Biergarten (or more accurately, Weingarten) was perfectly set with polka band Polkageist West, a buffet of German cuisine, never ending Federweisser and all the pretzels and mustard I could eat! Just as Crista promised, Chef made sure I was very well fed. Vegan wurst, German potato salad, cabbage salad, warm pretzels and the best artisan whole grain mustards I’d ever had! If you are looking for a new wine club membership I highly suggest that you give Schug Carneros Estate Winery a try. They have gone far above most local wineries to ensure that their vegan guests have as much food, wine and fun as their omnivorous guests!

I never dreamed that I’d come home from a wine tasting sunburned, sweaty and covered in dirt from my shins down and consider it one of my favorite wine tasting experiences!  I recently joined Schug Estate winemaker Mike Cox and his team at their Pinot N Pickin party and picnic. This was my first grape picking party and I have to admit that it brought out a bit of my competitive side!

Schug Carneros Estate Winery is located in Sonoma County’s beautiful Carneros region just 20 minutes from downtown Napa. This family owned winery has an enduring history in wine making. Founders Walter and Gertrud followed in the footsteps of their fathers who were both wine estate managers in Germany. Their true love endeavored over the next six years while Walter trained at various wineries in Germany, England and California and continued to complete his Viticulture & Enology degree. Finally, spring of 1961, they married and within a month were on a ship heading to New York City. From there, they loaded up all of their possessions into their Volkswagen Beetle and made the cross-country journey to California to join the burgeoning wine industry. In 1966, Walter was hired by E&J Gallo which led to a long relationship making wines for Joseph Phelps Vineyards before he struck out on his own. Having more demand than their leased winery could produce, Walter & Gertrud purchased 50 acres in Sonoma’s Carneros Appellation. As their family business grew, their three children, Andrea, Claudia and Axel, contributed their expertise to the business. And Axel’s wife Kristine explores her passion for food and wine pairing as the Winery Chef. Though Walter and Gertrud have now both passed on, their passion for wine endures through their children!

The morning of the grape picking dawned cool and sunny. It was the beginning of a perfect day. Surrounded by many of the wine club members, I was treated to a quick tour of their cellar before the hard work began. I always enjoy seeing the inner workings of the winery. And contributing to the harvest of the grapes helped me appreciate the amount of work that goes into the finished bottle. The entire team was working hard and bustling around getting it done! Next, was the picking of the teams! Intern Michele from Italy and Lena from Germany were in charge of the competition. As soon as I heard Lena was from Germany, I made sure I got on her team. I even got to practice a bit of my new language skills! But this was no time for play. My team needed to defeat Team Italy. After a quick demonstration on how to use sharp cutting instruments, the picking began. We all started out a little slow but the chatting died down as we became more comfortable harvesting the grapes. It wasn’t long before jackets and sweaters came off and sun hats went on. As the bins began to fill with grapes, the energy turned from friendly to friendly but competitive. It was amazing how quickly an hour and a half flew by! Then the waiting began. Each bin of grapes were driven up to the scales. Tension filled the air and everyone held their breath. And then it was announced…Team Germany defeated Team Italy by 200 pounds! Ja! Fantastich!

To celebrate our harvest, the sipping of wine began! The 2016 Sonoma Coast Sauvignon Blanc was bright, well balanced, and offered a lovely grapefruit finish. A much better way to cool down than drinking water! This wine paired really well with my picnic lunch of fresh greens and a grilled veggie & portobello sandwich on sourdough. It was really delicious; another reminder that some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten are made with simple & healthy whole foods. The 2015 Estate grown Chardonnay was another wonderful surprise. Grown in the cool climate at the Estate vineyard with minimal new oak, it was refreshing with an elegant finish. This Chardonnay pairs very nicely with food. Next, they introduced the 2015 Estate grown Pinot Noir. It will do nothing but improve with a couple more years of cellaring but I really enjoyed the flavor of strawberry and the silky finish! Finally, I finished my picnic with the 2013 Late Harvest Riesling. The 2013 Riesling is not vegan but the next vintage release will be! Walter Schug was a true pioneer of late harvest Rieslings with almost 60 years of winemaking experience here in the U.S. and Germany. Its high sugar content made this the perfect finish to a perfect afternoon! Who needs dessert when we can sip the wonderful outcome of noble rot!

Winemaker Mike Cox grew up in Sonoma and learned much about the winemaking process in his hometown. Being a local, he had a big jump start over many other young winemakers who don’t grow up in such an extraordinary area. While he started college studying to become a chemical engineer, it wasn’t long before he transferred to U.C. Davis and completed his Enology degree. His summers where spent working at Sonoma wineries, learning and building experience in the industry. He enjoys working closely with growers and prefers small production vineyards for the unique qualities they contribute to his blends. This really does show through in his wines. He prefers using the newer technologies available to winemakers today which include not only the hydraulic punch-down fermenters but also moving away from using animal product to fine his wines. Beginning with his 2014 to current vintages, his whites are all vegan-friendly. Any reds beginning in 2005 to current vintages are vegan as are the Roses and Rouge de Noirs.

Intern Lena with Team Germany celebrating our win!

If you are planning on exploring Sonoma Valley, Schug Carneros Estate is a wonderful place to start. The drive up Bonneau Road takes you through the vineyards to the hillside tasting room. The families’ German history is reflected in their cozy post and beam tasting room and their German flag. And from the upper patio you will enjoy a spectacular 360 degree view that includes Mount Diablo. Hang out with friends at the picnic tables and order wine by the glass or take a self-guided tour wandering through the vineyards. No appointment is needed; just stop by the tasting room for a detailed guide with the points of interest marked along your route. Reservations for a tasting are only required if your party is 6 or more. If you do prefer a private tasting, CLICK HERE to schedule your visit. Make a day of it, enjoy beautiful Sonoma Valley and as always; eat, drink…and be vegan!

March 18

Bell Wine Cellars – Unfiltered and Off The Beaten Path!

The beauty of Napa Valley is undeniable! I feel privileged to live here and am often in awe of the beauty that surrounds me. The journey along Highway 29 up-valley to Calistoga is sometimes congested but always scenic. The Silverado Trail is my favorite way to travel the Valley. This stunning route travels along the eastern edge of Napa Valley parallel to and several miles east of Highway 29. Whichever way I journey, it always makes me smile. But I have to admit that I have always been someone who likes to get off the beaten track. I love to find restaurants that time forgot, dive bars that border on sketchy and resorts that are far from the tourist traps. Bell Wine Cellars is one of those little delights. Their Winery is truly just minutes east of Highway 29 but once you are there you feel like it is miles away.

As you journey toward the Winery, you are surrounded by their Merlot and Chardonnay estate vines. While I was there, I had the wonderful opportunity to see my first budbreak up close and personal in the Chardonnay vineyard. It made me feel that spring has finally come to Napa Valley! The Merlot and Chardonnay grow so well here in Napa because of the long, cool summer days influenced by the breeze and early morning fog from nearby San Pablo Bay. The Clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon is grown further north in the Rutherford Region of Napa. These vines benefit from warmer summer days and cool evening breezes offered by the Bay. And the Syrah grapes which are grown inland at 2,000 feet in the Sierra Foothills benefit from shallow soils, low yields, long hot days and cool mountain evenings all influenced by the nearby New Mellones Dam. Each of these unique microclimates, creates grapes with extraordinary quality and style.

Chardonnay Budbreak! Spring is here...
Chardonnay Budbreak! Spring is here…

What I found the most interesting and delicious about my experience and tasting at Bell Wine Cellars is the winemaker’s philosophy on how to make wine. Winemaker, Anthony Bell, was born into a wine family in South Africa. He worked throughout Spain, France and South Africa as a teenager developing an appreciation for the elegant and sophisticated European winemaking style. In fact, he learned that the magic in winemaking is crafting it from the vineyards not from the cellar. His philosophy is that wines are meant to be grown in the vineyard while he is merely the steward of nature while it is in his cellar. He has long been pursuing this philosophy known as terrior. Terrior is the French term for the factors that differentiate one vineyard from another including the climate, soil, and clonal selection.

Anthony Bell completed his undergraduate degree in Viticulture at Stellenbosch University in South Africa before pursuing his Master’s degree in Enology at U.C. Davis. He then began a 15-year long career with Beaulieu Vineyard – California’s royal house of Cabernet Sauvignon! Anthony’s tenure at Beaulieu Vineyard included Director of Winemaking and later General Manager. While there, he pioneered educational grower-vineyard programs and wrote the definition for the Carneros appellation. By conducting the now famous and groundbreaking research into the differences and impact of clonal variations on Cabernet Sauvignon, he raised the bar on Beaulieu Vineyard’s grape quality. Clonal variation is essentially the replication of a single vine which then creates uniformity and helps that wine taste like its “parent”. Then in 1991, he crushed his first vintage of Bell Cabernet Sauvignon, Clone 6. It is thought that this is the first single vineyard, single clone Cabernet ever produced and labeled in Napa! Within three years of producing his first Bell vintage, Anthony Bell left BV to pursue his passion of producing small quantities of hand crafted, vineyard-expressive wines.

Maggie explaining Anthony Bell's winemaking philosophy!
Maggie explaining Anthony Bell’s winemaking philosophy!

Besides an occasional Pinot Noir or a blend, I have rarely enjoyed red wine. I have always felt they are big, brawny and really overpower my palate and the food pairing. What I didn’t realize is that is what makes Napa Valley’s wines so sought after. That is what Napa Valley is known for…BIG red wines!! Thanks to Maggie Bernat, Hospitality and Events Manager, now I know. And now I understand why I fell in love with every red wine that I tasted at Bell Wine Cellars. The elegance and sophistication of their European style winemaking is what my palate has longed for without even realizing it! In fact, I went home with their 2013 Unfiltered Syrah. Syrah, which until finding this winery, was one of my least favorite wines is now my favorite red wine. This experience helped me realize how much I have learned about wine since I moved to Napa Valley. And at the same time reinforced that fact that I still have so much more to learn. Hmmmm, so more wine tasting? Yes, what a wonderful idea!!

Unfiltered Syrah - elegant & sophisticated!
Unfiltered Syrah – elegant & sophisticated!

As a vegan, the key to enjoying Bell wines is to stick with the reds and look for the word Unfiltered. I purchased my Syrah from Joe and he explained that none of the Bell Wine Cellars’ reds are filtered which means they are not fined so are not exposed to animal products. Though I did really enjoy the Chardonnay, it was explained to me that consumers do not enjoy unfiltered white wines. They seem to have a problem with seeing things floating around in their wine. Because of this, the Chardonnay is typically fined using egg whites. But don’t be sad! You will love the elegant flavor of their Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah wines.

Bell Wine Cellars
Bell Wine Cellars

Bell Wine Cellars is located at 6700 Washington Street just south of beautiful Yountville. It is surrounded by vineyards and cloaked in contemplative serenity with an occasional distant toot from the Napa Valley Wine Train horn. The tasting room is a majestic building made of pale stone shadowed by oak trees. The patio offers a spectacular view of the Mayacamas range and is flooded with golden sunlight as the sun dips below Mount St. John. Enjoy a leisurely picnic or play a game of bocce ball as you sip their extraordinary wines.

bocce ball bocce ball2

They are open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. by appointment only. And are happy to accommodate special requests. I experienced this first hand while attending a large party at Bell Wine Cellars recently. My husband Steve and I were the only vegans there and to our surprise Maggie had the Chef prepare a special plate of vegan hors d’oeuvres for us to enjoy. In fact, we had a hard time keeping all of the meat-eating party goers from devouring our tasty morsels!

Hey! Who ate all of my vegan morsels?!
Hey! Who ate all of my vegan morsels?!

I know you will enjoy your experience at Bell Wine Cellars as much as I enjoyed mine. So get off the beaten track and try this decidedly European experience. And as always…eat, drink and be vegan!